Time for electric cars to find their voice

Jon Excell
The Engineer

It’s not often that Culture Club, the Clash and the Beach Boys are mentioned in The Engineer, but in our latest interview we take an intriguing look at how the producer of these seminal acts – Steve Levine – is helping the auto industry address an increasingly pressing concern: making electric vehicles (EVs) noisier.

On the face of it, the relative silence of an EV is quite an endearing quality. Most people consider traffic noise a nuisance and anything that can be done to reduce it should probably be welcomed.

But there’s a flipside. As pedestrians and road users, we’re attuned to the sound of traffic. Almost subconsciously, we use the rising growl of an oncoming vehicle’s accelerating engine to gauge its distance and speed and to make a split-second decision about whether it’s safe to cross the road or not. Remove this important auditory cue and suddenly crossing the road becomes that little bit more hazardous.

And with EVs rapidly gaining in popularity, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. After all, a spate of serious accidents involving near-silent electric cars and unwary pedestrians would seriously dent the growing, but still tentative, public acceptance of these vehicles.

Fortunately, industry and government are awake to the challenge and with legislation specifying minimum noise limits expected to come in soon, a number of companies are looking into possible solutions that will undoubtedly make greater numbers of EVs a safer proposition. As we report, Levine is working with Lotus Engineering and audio specialist Harmon on the development of HALOSonic, an active noise technology that promises to give both drivers of EVs and pedestrians those all-important audible cues.

We use the rising growl of an oncoming vehicle to make a split-second decision about whether it’s safe to cross the road

Of course, it’s not just about safety. Technology that endows the tiniest car with the growl of a V8 engine – or, as The Engineer once witnessed, the sound of 600 stampeding horses – is likely to become incredibly popular with the lucrative boy-racer market.

The importance of noise is also touched upon in our Big Story, which looks at the development of the snappily named M838T, the engine for McLaren Automotive’s new supercar – the equally snappily named MP4-12C.

The engineers involved in the project were tasked with developing an engine that delivers some impressive headline figures. But, as we report, beyond the tangible performance targets, they were equally mindful of a more subjective quality: the noise of the engine, a critical element of the visceral experience of driving a very fast, very expensive sports car.